What Is Holistic Yoga?
Yoga has a long and complicated history. If you are super curious about that you can start here and pretty much read for years. (Long story short yoga has a long complicated history that is deeply embedded with Hindu beliefs. It’s fascinating stuff, so do take some time when you can!) What matters for most of us however is modern yoga. There are multiple schools of modern yoga. Each tends to emphasize different parts of the practice. Many have charismatic (and sometimes problematic) cult-like leaders. We aren’t here to discuss the merits of any particular yoga school, but rather what makes any yoga practice holistic.
Yoga, like many spiritual practices, is what you make it. You can dedicate yourself to a certain school and follow it as if it were the only way. Or, you can sample around as works for you. Me, I’m more of a sampler. The world is far too big and complicated and diverse to stick with just one way of doing things. I’ll take what works, leave the cult of personality behind, and concentrate on the practice itself. I prefer what I call holistic yoga; yoga that feeds both your body and your spirit.
Breath is Key
In short holistic yoga is a movement practice with breath. For me this means it becomes more than exercise, it becomes meditation in motion. (For more on how start a spiritual practice well, so it sticks, read this.) Without the breath work, it ain’t yoga. Yoga can be more or less spiritual depending on your goals, or the person with whom you are practicing (this is why your yoga teacher matters).
I started yoga because I was out of shape. I live in Seattle, where traditional workouts like running are wet and miserable most of the year. A warm cozy studio seemed like heaven. I started purely because I desperately needed to get my body into shape, but I found my soul got worked on too.
In the past, yoga tied to religious beliefs and practices. And for many people, all over the world, it still incorporates those belief systems, but it doesn’t have to. Anyone can practice holistic yoga. A good teacher will be clear that you start where you are no matter where that is, and you go from there. Bring what you want to your practice, nothing else.
Wherever you are right now is OK, and wherever you end up, also OK. For a perfectionist like me, that’s a big important spiritual practice; being OK with where I am. I remind myself frequently that holistic yoga is not about comparing yourself to the person next to you (especially the person 20 years my senior who isn’t even sweating and has just bent in half while I struggle to reach my toes). Holistic yoga is also not about reaching some sort of end goal. The practice itself is what matters.
Yoga for a Healthy Body
When it comes right down to it, yoga is good for you. Yoga emphasizes whole body strength, stamina, and flexibility, beginning with your core. The whole body gets worked which is an important part of overall wellness. Since so much of yoga is about balance (as in not falling over), and balance between the sides of your body, yoga provides a great correction to our lopsided lives. Most of us spend most of our lives using one side of our body for fine motor stuff and the other for strength, we end up lopsided and far more prone to injury and repetitive stress injury (my poor right hand/arm/fingers).
Yoga helps to straighten us, balance us, and work on overall muscle tone. It’s also pretty darn good for increasing stamina and cardio-vascular fitness. Try getting through a decent yoga class without an elevated heart rate, I certainly can’t do it. I generally gauge my own fitness level by how many times I need to take child pose to keep from passing out. A good yoga class will emphasize correct form, and correct movement between poses because doing them wrong can increase your risk for injury and work your muscles incorrectly.
When done right yoga slowly works on increasing our range of motion and flexibility, though this will vary strongly based on your body. Mine is highly inflexible and while I see improvements I will never be wrapping my leg around the back of my neck, and that’s OK.
There is no need to be able to stand on your head to get health benefits from yoga practice. They key to yoga practice is your breath. As long as you are still breathing with the movements (no holding your breath folks!) then you aren’t pushing too hard. The breath is an important touchstone in yoga to know your limits, keep yourself safe, and incorporate spiritual benefits with your wellness practice!
Yoga for a Healthy Soul
Many meditation practices start with your breath. Buddhist sitting meditation is often taught to beginners as “following the breath,” and just about every other meditation practice (walking meditation, mindfulness meditation, Christian meditation) emphasizes the importance of our breathing. In yoga your breath grounds your practice, it governs the speed at which you move into and out of poses, it helps you move deeper into poses and it helps keep your (let’s be honest here, MY) monkey mind in the present. And this is key for holistic yoga.
Yoga is meditation for we who cannot sit still!
Many, many people find meditation difficult. We aren’t a culture that’s good at sitting still for long periods of time, we’re not great at silence either. But we need both. Yoga is an excellent way to get our minds and spirits into a place of stillness. The practice of moving with the breath does for wiggly, active people what traditional meditation practice does for those more predisposed for it. It draws us inward, focuses us, and grounds our minds.
For many people the act of matching their movements to their breath gives their mind an anchor, and keeps it from running off on its own mad errands. Add in all the good endorphins that yoga exercise produces and the final corpse pose at the end of most yoga practice might just be the best meditation you have all week. It is for me.
Customize Your Yoga Practice
It isn’t at all uncommon to find yourself crying in corpse pose. As your body and spirit finally let go of things you didn’t even realize you’d been carrying around with you, the tears may flow. As with all things in this practice if you cry, or giggle, or fall asleep that’s probably what you need to be doing in that moment, so let it happen. I would suggest at first concentrating solely on your breath as you move through the yoga poses. Let yourself be still, and simply experience as best as possible the quiet of a tired body in savasana (corpse pose).
As you become more comfortable in your yoga practice it is totally OK to add elements of your own spiritual tradition if that makes sense for you. Before you begin you can set an intention for that day’s practice, say a prayer, or choose a mantra. While moving through poses you can pray for individuals, or issues that are on your heart. Try holding each prayer in your thoughts for the whole of a single pose.
Remember that this is your practice and you can tailor it as you see fit, within the realm of your own practice you can make the spirituality of yoga work for you. I suspect you will find that many of your current practices, or the things you want to do but don’t have time for, will work quite well with yoga movements.
Finding a Studio
This is an important part of any yoga practice, the yoga studio. Especially if you are new to yoga, I do suggest finding a studio! For yoga to be safe and effective it’s important that you learn the poses properly, and how to transition poses safely. Things like the position, and angle of your knee can make the difference between injury or a safe practice. A good yoga instructor who can see you and help you make adjustments is incredibly helpful for this. (I do yoga at home frequently now, but my first few months in person instruction was a great help.)
Considerations: Newbie Friendly?
When choosing yoga studios there are some things to look for. First, look for a studio that will allow you to take classes for a reduced rate for the first month or so. Many studios offer an unlimited “new member” pass for a greatly reduced rate. These kinds of deals are a good way to try as many of their teachers as possible. As with all things some teachers will work better for you and your goals than others, so trying lots of classes is key. Look for studios with specific beginner classes, and with graded classes based on instruction and difficulty. If you are new and trying a class that isn’t listed as new yogi friendly let the teacher know that you are just getting started, a good teacher will be sure to check in throughout the class, offer you help and advice, and modify poses as needed for your fitness level.
Considerations: Style & Heat
Know that not all yoga is “hot” yoga, though that is very popular right now. Hot yoga classes are done in rooms heated over 85 degrees. There are lots of reasons folks like these classes and if they work for you, great! But if you have issues with overheating, or just find them uncomfortable keep an eye out for unheated, or “warm” yoga classes and studios in your area, they do exist and it is just fine to go with what works best of your body. Personally, I can’t handle hot yoga, and that’s OK.
Considerations: Spirit & Community
Finally, pay attention to the culture of the studio. Many yoga studios are geared purely toward the health and fitness side of yoga, with no spiritual component at all. Others will include meditation, and chant in their practices. I prefer a studio that is aware of, and encourages the spiritual components of yoga practice. A holistic practice is important for me and so this is a major consideration. Some studios also attempt to foster community among their members with occasional meet-ups, meals, or group outings. Others put together monthly challenge groups that support one another in reaching some sort of goal with their practice. Especially if you don’t already have a spiritual community this might be an important consideration.
Practicing At Home
Getting your feet wet in a studio is a great place to start, but memberships in studios tend to be expensive. Practicing at home either to supplement your studio practice, or as your main practice, is a great option once you are established. The advantages are manifold. At home you control the temperature, you can practice any time of the day or night, and there’s zero temptation to compare yourself to the person next to you. (Unless you have a cat, who are natural yogis.) If you are a really experienced yogi you can certainly practice all on your own, putting together your own flow. For those of us who need a little guidance there are lots of options.
Videos & Books
You can use DVDs with your home entertainment system (am I the only one who still has a DVD player?), or stream Youtube videos. Amazon has thousands of DVD options, everything from yoga for the person over 50 to power yoga to “shred” your body in 30 days (which doesn’t sound pleasant at all!). I don’t suggest these options for the true newbie however, nothing replaces an instructor for those first vital practices learned the forms properly. My hands down favorite? Yoga with Adriene.
You’ll find yoga apps for your phone as well, some free and some paid. A favorite for me is Down Dog (Android) and (iPhone). Down Dog generates a practice for you based on your chosen skill level, practice length, and practice type. This sort of app is super handy for fitting in a quick practice into a slot of time you wouldn’t normally be able to get to a studio and do a whole class, or sit through a whole DVD.
Finally there are online yoga memberships that act a bit like a studio. (These still lack the feedback and help of an in person instructor). I use and enjoy Yoga International though there are many options. For a set monthly fee (far, far less than a studio) you get access to a wide variety of unlimited classes. Stream the videos on your computer, phone, or to your TV (via something like Chromecast) and you’ve got a whole lot of choice for home instruction.
However you chose to practice get out there and try something new!